Turning tragedy into prevention, awareness


Community-based organizations dedicated to mental health and well-being are hoping the Aug. 11 suicide of famed actor and comedian Robin Williams will not only encourage dialogue at an international level, but also on a local level.

While numerous resources are available in town and to Alberta residents — including private therapy and counselling, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Health Link Alberta and Alberta Health Services Mental Health Services — a valuable resource in the prevention, intervention and awareness of suicide is Some Other Solutions (SOS).

“Suicide prevention is very much a huge part of the portfolio of services that we offer,” said Janene Hickman, an SOS counsellor. “In addition to suicide awareness, which includes suicide prevention and intervention, we do presentations and workshops on topics related to suicide, (like) stress management, mental health, mental wellness, self-harm, healthy living.

“What we would identify with some of those presentations is that suicide doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are some underlying factors, so if we’re able to have the opportunity to discuss what some of the risk factors are, people are better prepared, educated and able to manage better.”

People considering attempting suicide often exhibit warning signs that friends, family members and co-workers should be aware of.

“People who do die by suicide often have underlying mental health concerns that may be treated or untreated, and people who die by suicide often have made previous attempts,” Hickman said. “There are certainly some signs we look for, which would be dramatic changes in their mood, loss of interest in activities they enjoyed previous, an increase in drug or alcohol abuse, riskier types of behaviour (and) overall changes in personality.”

Changes in sleep patterns, more or less than usual, and eating habits can also indicate that something is amiss, along with withdrawing and isolating themselves from loved ones. Some may verbally indicate feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, isolation and use common language like “What’s the point?” “I just can’t take it anymore,” or “People would be better off without me.”

Hickman says it’s also important to realize not every person suffering from depression will also have suicidal inclinations as the two are not mutually exclusive.

“Those are also often symptoms of depression,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to give the impression in any capacity that people who are depressed want to kill themselves. It’s possible, but what we can identify from research is that with people who want to commit suicide, there’s often been a trigger of some kind.”

Those triggers can be anything from the loss a family member, friend, relationship or employment; dramatic life changes; stress; health concerns; or underlying mental health issues.

“We look at it, that people are perhaps presented with situations where they feel powerless to be able to work through that and see the opportunity that things will improve on the other end, not be able to see that things will get better,” Hickman said.

In an email, Canadian Mental Health Association director Karen McMillan says discussions surrounding mental health are important and need to happen more regularly than just when a celebrity dies by their own hand.

“The conversation needs to be ongoing with news of Robin Williams,” she said. “This gives people permission to speak out regarding the importance of recognizing the signs and symptoms for those who are suffering from a mental illness. Educating the community to see the signs when a friend, family member, or colleague may be withdrawing from activities and places that they enjoyed, expressing that they feel down — this is when we start the conversation to offer help.”

World Suicide Prevention Day is Sept. 10 and Hickman says she’d like to see McMurrayites join the yellow ribbon campaign. SOS staff will be on hand with ribbons, information and resources at the City Centre McMurray Urban Market to raise awareness.

Resources are available in Wood Buffalo and across the province for anyone struggling with feelings of depression, hopelessness and isolation or any other underlying causes.

Help is available 24/7 by calling the Crisis Hotline at 780-743-4357 or by contacting any local mental health care provider.